Tuesday, February 26, 2008

18 October: Cochem, Burg Eltz and Schloss Petershagen

After a simple breakfast in the Alte Thorschenke’s quaint dining room, we decided to walk up to the 1,000-year-old Reichsburg, Cochem’s imperial fortress (photo, right), before leaving town. We strolled along the pretty riverside promenade before heading uphill. It was a bit overcast but the sun was starting to break through the clouds as we wound up through the town and vineyards and arrived about twenty minutes later at the imposing stone gatehouse. From the ramparts we were treated to an absolutely breathtaking panorama over Cochem and the Mosel Valley, complete with barge chugging down the river. After a few minutes the sun broke through the clouds and washed the golden-leaved vineyards in warm morning sunlight; it was a postcard-perfect scene and produced one of my favorite photos from our entire time in Germany (below).

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to tour the castle itself, but we took our fill of photos and then wandered back through town. We decided to stop at a wine cellar that was advertising an Eisweinprob (ice wine tasting). We had never tried Eiswein but we knew it was a local specialty, and although it is now made in other areas of the world (notably Canada), it originated in the Mosel region. We walked into a cool, dark, barrel-vaulted chamber lined with wine cases and asked for a sample. We were assisted by a very nice young man who obliged us by carrying out the whole transaction in German. He explained that Eiswein is made from Riesling grapes that have been left on the vine until overnight temperatures drop to a minimum of −7 °C (19 °F), which means that the grapes must remain on the vine for up to several months after the regular harvest. (He also mentioned something about harvesting the grapes in the middle of the night – I guess to ensure that they remain frozen.) There is a lot of risk involved because if the freeze does not come quickly enough, the grapes may rot and the whole crop will be lost. The water in the grapes freezes but the sugars do not, resulting in a sweet, intensely-flavored dessert wine. We ended up buying four bottles of Eiswein and three local Rieslings. An older gentleman rang us up and didn’t charge us for the tasting, I presume because we made a purchase. He packaged everything up nicely for us and, thus loaded down, we continued back to the hotel by way of Cochem’s charming Marktplatz. I waited outside with our bags while John retrieved our car and then we set out for Burg Eltz.

We drove to the castle by the same zig-zagging country roads that I had taken with my parents last year. The parking lot was quite full when we arrived, but it was, after all, a gorgeous fall day. On our walk down we were treated to terrific views of the castle perched on its little rocky promontory, embraced by the sparkling waters of the River Elz. The sun was still difficult for photography purposes but I managed to get some better shots this time. There was quite a line for tickets and we decided to take the German tour so we wouldn’t have to wait for an English one. We had a nice young woman for our guide and I really enjoyed seeing the castle again. I think John liked it too but it’s hard to tell with him – I think he is suffering from castle burnout. (Unglaublich, I know!) In case you missed it the first time around, here’s an excerpt from my journal about my first visit to Burg Eltz:

Burg Eltz is a tall, skinny, fairytale sort of castle that looks like the culmination of a dozen or so different architects slowly adding on bits and pieces to it over the centuries (which is a pretty accurate description). Its rather odd floorplan stems from the rocky crag it sits on, as the builders simply used the rock as a foundation and built straight up. The castle may seem isolated in its narrow valley now, but at the times of its construction it was well-situated on an important trade route. It is still owned by a branch of the same family that began construction of the castle in the 12th century – 33 generations ago! Over the centuries, the family split into three branches (Rübenach, Rodendorf, and Kempenich), but they all retained ownership of a part of the property and slowly constructed their own separate family houses – an arrangement known as a Ganerbenburg (castle of joint heirs). The castle was built as a well-fortified residence rather than a fortress, and, as it never came under direct attack except for a brief 14th-century regional feud, it survives today more or less in its original condition.

Various Eltz family members were important figures in regional politics, including several who served as Prince Electors of Mainz and Trier. During the Palatinate wars of succession in the 17th century, the castle was saved from destruction (a fate dealt to many of the Rhine castles) by a member of the Eltz family who held high rank in the French army. By 1815, Graf Hugo Phillip of the Rübenach family was the sole owner of the castle – the Rodendorfs had died out in the late 1700s and the Kempenichs had moved on to other properties. Major restoration was undertaken in the late 19th century, but fortunately the overall look of the castle remained unchanged. Today the castle is owned by one Dr. Karl Graf von und zu Eltz, who retains private apartments in the Rübenach house.

You begin your tour in the castle courtyard, where you are surrounded on all sides by up to ten stories of ancient stone walls interrupted here and there by red-shuttered windows, half-timbered bits, and various chimneys, spires, and cupolas. Each of the three family houses has its own door, with the name carved over the top.

No picture-taking is allowed inside (this seems to be the norm in privately-owned castles, probably to ensure the sale of souvenir books to support the upkeep of the structures), but suffice it to say that the interior is spectacular – immaculately-preserved and fully furnished, looking as if the lord of the castle could settle in for a feast or a glass of grog by the fireplace at any moment. We started in the entry hall of the Rübenach house – the oldest portion of the castle – which today contains the armory collection, and proceeded into the Lower Hall, with gigantic oak beams, Flemish tapestries, and a clock that has been in the Eltz family since the year 1500. The Upper Hall was at some point converted into a master bedroom and contains a magnificent curtained 16th-century bed set on a wooden pedestal. A huge fireplace surely kept this room cozy in the winter. Colorful, well-preserved decorative painting covers the ceiling, which had been whitewashed (and thus protected) in the 16th century and was not uncovered for 300 years. We also got a peek at the wood-paneled toilet closet, one of twenty in the castle, which dates to the 15th century. The toilets were flushed by rainwater out to the river – pretty advanced plumbing for the time. (Our informative English handout also says that they used cabbage leaves and hay for toilet “paper.”)

We proceeded via a staircase into the Rodendorf house, which took its name from the family’s land holdings in Lorraine. The Elector’s Room contains portraits of the Eltz family who held the title of Prince Elector, along with a lovely set of Rococo chairs and another Flemish tapestry. Next we passed through the Great Hall, the family’s council room and the largest chamber in the castle. This room is decorated with weaponry, including three fine suits of armor, as well as beautiful biblical paintings with mother-of-pearl inlay and several money chests with intricate locks. Next came what is supposed to have been a children’s room, with a wonderful 16th-century bed thought to be the oldest Renaissance bed in Germany. A tiny staircase leads up to a second bedroom perhaps for a nurse, and the window is outfitted with a miniature ledge for small children. The breastplate and battle axe mounted on the wall are said to belong to Agnes, the castle’s resident ghost, who died defending the castle – and her honor – from an unwanted suitor.

The Fahnensaal (Banner Hall) was used for banqueting and has gorgeous vaulted ceilings and a brick tile floor dating from 1490. Finally, we toured the large, comfortable kitchen, which has been outfitted to look like it did some five hundred years ago, including all sorts of wooden utensils, huge iron pots, a tufa-stone bread oven, and an enormous 15th-century flour chest.

After our tour, John and I walked down to the river and crossed a footbridge to get a view of the castle from below. We had a tasty lunch of sausages, potato salad, and glühwein from the castle’s small snack bar before walking back up the hill to the car.

It was getting on in the afternoon and we still had at least a three-hour drive ahead of us to get to our destination for the night, Romantik Hotel Schloss Petershagen near Minden. Our route took us along the Mosel to its terminus at the Rhine, giving us lovely views of the steep vine-covered hillsides just beginning to display their autumn colors (photo, right). At one point the road took us directly through a castle – I have since determined that this was Schloss von der Leyen in the town of Kobern-Gondorf. Apparently they had no choice but to build the road through the castle’s courtyard! I had little luck finding a nice hotel in Minden, which is really not a big tourist destination, but fortunately Beth had found this place for me on the internet. I couldn’t find any reviews for it but it looked pretty fabulous in the pictures at least. Their website is only in German and I think it is known more as a local getaway and conference facility. We were originally planning to stop in Minden and find someplace for dinner, but we ran into a lot of traffic and more bad weather along the way, so we knew we were going to be too late to have any time in town. I called the hotel and made dinner reservations there instead. We started getting excited when we saw the first signs on the Autobahn for Berlin and Hannover – now we were really headed north! We didn’t have any trouble finding the castle itself but it was difficult to see the hotel entrance in the dark, so we accidentally went into the conference area first. Fortunately a man waiting for someone outside was able to direct us to the main entrance. It was pitch black by the time we arrived, around 8 pm, so we could see nothing of the castle except for the vague outline of a grand courtyard. We walked up a spiraling stone staircase to the reception area on the first floor and were greeted quite warmly, although I’m sure the appearance of a couple of Americans with a German name on a dark October night was a bit unusual. We asked for a few minutes to settle in before coming down to dinner and went up another flight of stairs to our very nice double room, done in pink and gold with antique furnishings and a pretty coral-and-white bathroom.

There were only two other parties in the formal yellow-and-white dining room when we arrived. We had the taste of the chef, a tiny vegetable terrine, and then we both had the three-course menue of chicken liver mousse with calvados gelée, mixed salad with smoked ham vinaigrette, and medallions of wild boar wrapped in bacon, served on a bed of herbed mashed potatoes with wild mushrooms, creamy gravy, and Brussels sprouts. To accompany this delicious feast we had a Württemberg Weinsberg Spätburgunder. Dessert was the icing on the cake: John had spiced coffee mousse with red wine-soaked pear and I had chocolate ravioli with poppyseed butter, mango cream sauce, and rose oil ice cream. This was perhaps one of the most inventive desserts I’ve ever come across in my European travels! The rose oil ice cream was particularly interesting and inspired the quote of the day: “This tastes like a frozen bath product!” But I meant it in a good way, really.

More photos from today:

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